Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Carol Oates is a critically acclaimed, award-winning author with over seventy books published and decades of experience under her belt, and many of her literary works are considered modern cultural staples. However, one of her most poignant pieces is arguably a short story published in 1974 and titled “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” It is a classic retelling of the tragic loss of innocence to the societal evils of temptation, vanity, and reckless behavior. Oates establishes the theme of stolen youth through her characterization of the ensemble of compelling subjects, modern setting, and eerie images used to foreshadow the terrifying plot that is soon to unfold.

The fiction opens in a 1950s suburbia in an unidentifiable part of the United States. This setting is significant to the story because it represents a continuously-evolving culture that determines the value of young girls based on their physical beauty and perceived promiscuity. Immediately, the audience is introduced to the protagonist Connie, a fifteen year old who is obsessed with her appearance and feels disconnected from her family due to her mother’s constant complaints about her vanity, the emotional absence of her father, and constant comparisons to her older sister, June. Oates writes, “…she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right….June did this, June did that…and Connie couldn’t do a thing, her mind was all filled with trashy daydreams.” The use of third person point of view allows for an objective commentary on the type of person Connie is, and it places the reader in the complex position of recognizing more about the protagonist than she recognizes about herself; because they have a clearer understanding of the dangers of this kind of behavior, the foreshadowing brings them a more intense sense of dread, and the tension thickens as the plot moves closer and closer to the climax.

After a day out with her friend and a boy, a man in a bright, golden car approaches Connie at her home while her family is out, determined to make a perverted claim on her. The color of the car is a symbol of the gilded promises of fulfillment that girls receive from men seeking to prey upon their innocence. As stated by the narrator, “It was a car she didn’t know. It was an open jalopy, painted a bright gold that caught the sunlight opaquely. Her heart began to pound and her fingers snatched at her hair, checking it, and she whispered, ‘Christ. Christ,’ wondering how bad she looked.” Although Connie is made anxious by the situation, she is most concerned about whether or not her appearance will meet the expectations of this vulturous man; the difference between her internal feelings and her actions is an example of irony. It also further characterizes Connie as a person who places immense value on the way men perceive her and her ability to appease them with her beauty. Another example of characterization comes on page seven: “…and even that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn’t want to put into words.” It further illustrates the intentions of this man, and gives insight into the fact that Connie is at least somewhat familiar with the entitled attitude of men who are attracted to her.

Overall, the story has an anxious, foreboding tone that puts readers on edge with its sober word choice and images. Although the author has been criticized for making statements that allow space for victim-blaming, the weight of her words is still immense in the hands of a generation where young people are encouraged to act matured and sacrifice their youth to the sexual explotation of predators, such as the antagonist in this story. Oates uses the story of fifteen year old Connie to warn other teenagers of the abusive circumstances that they might end up in if they are not aware of the dangers of being dependent on validation from others to feel whole. Connie’s safety and innocence, represented by her family home, is mercilessly violated, because instead of being protected by her family, she is shamed by them and acts in retaliation to their actions.

Author: Sydney Knotts

“A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.” — Roald Dahl

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